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'I see things people shouldn't see.' What it's like working in digital forensics for the AFP.

When Paula goes out with her children, she's "always on the lookout for people". 

As a Senior Digital Forensic Examiner for the Australian Federal Police, the 35-year-old mother-of-three spends her days combing through evidence to help take down child exploitation rings. 

"You see material that I don't think anyone should see," she tells Mamamia. 

"There will be jobs that will always affect you and it will play on your mind. I am human and I am a mother."

After 12 years on the job, it’s easy to understand her concerns. But she’s thankful her husband offers a different perspective. 

"My husband has been really good in reminding me that not everyone is a paedophile."

"He’s helped me to [understand] you can be cautious but there is a line between being overly paranoid and letting the kids be kids."

Despite the challenges of the job, the payoff of helping a child in need makes it all worth it. 

"I look at the bigger picture and know if I give it my all then something will come out of it, and a child somewhere may be better off."

Her desire to help people and make a difference was what inspired Paula - a self-described "computer geek" - to join the AFP in the first place. 

That, and Law and Order: SVU. 

"I was at university and I was really good at coding... and they offered a brand new major for computer forensics. I was obsessed with Law and Order: SVU at the time so I thought it was perfect for me."

"I knew I wanted to work for the federal police, immediately I had that as a goal," she shared. "I ended up applying for the job as soon as there was a vacancy and I had my degree ready." 

For Paula it was her dream job, but being the first woman and youngest team member to join the Digital Forensics team in Sydney at 23 didn’t come without its hurdles. 

"I think any person breaking a stereotype feels like there is little room for error so that made me put more pressure on myself to excel and I became a perfectionist."

"I remember in the first few years, feeling like I had so many eyes watching me at search warrants when I would crawl under a desk to pull apart a computer with my screwdrivers and tools, and often the residents or investigators who didn’t know me would stare and watch me intently. So I felt the pressure to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes or prove that I actually knew what I was doing."

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Despite the pressure, she said she always felt supported by her team leader and is glad to see more women working in the AFP and forensics today.

"I'd say in the past five years, women have shown more interest in this field. Whereas beforehand, my girlfriend would think I was crazy for even studying coding or doing anything with computers."

These days, as a Senior Digital Forensic Examiner, she takes on multiple cases at a time, supporting investigations across a range of crime types including child protection and counter-terrorism. 

Her day starts off with an early morning alarm, before getting into the office at 6:30 am, while her husband gets her kids ready and takes them to school. 

At work, every day is different for Paula. She could be attending search warrants with investigators or trawling through devices back at the office. 

"The investigators lead the cases and ask us for help so I’ll go to a search warrant with them and look at all the suspects’ devices… We have a look for pictures, videos, correspondence, anything to see whether that piece of evidence will get seized or not."

Image: Supplied. 

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"Once they are seized, then a lot of the work is done back to the office… [investigators] will then tell us whether they want just a quick overview of the devices, an in-depth look or whether they want us to answer any questions to assist their case." 

It's careful, focused work. 

"You don't just jump on a computer and start opening up files, trawling through someone's folders."

"We [search] in a manner that is forensically sound, so we protect the integrity of the devices… because if that becomes evidence and [the suspect] gets caught, then we need to show that it wasn't tampered with."

After a day at work she heads home in the afternoon and picks her kids up from school, before settling in to watch a TV show before bed - these days she opts for something other than crime. 

Overall, she says she loves the flexibility of the job and is grateful her family are so understanding of the hours she works.

"I never thought that I'll be able to give this much attention to our family and my kids... I chose to put my family first while they're young so I didn't go down the leadership path of climbing the ranks at the moment. That's a choice I made and the AFP accepted that and helped me."

Throughout her career, Paula has done some incredible work. But she says her most rewarding moment would have to be when she was watching the news with her parents and she could see "how proud they were" of her. 

"I worked on a big counter-terrorism operation and I needed help from my mum [taking care of the kids]… I couldn't tell her anything about what I was doing," she explained. 

"My parents are old school Lebanese migrants who don't understand computers, so I was never able to explain to them what I actually do... So seeing their faces watch the news and telling them this is what I actually do… it meant a lot to me."

For other women thinking about joining the AFP like Paula, the 35-year-old says go for it.  

"There's so many opportunities and they provide so much training... Whatever path you choose to take as a female, you can do it there."

Feature Image: Supplied/Mamamia. 

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